The Gift of the Nile
The NILE RIVER , the longest river in the world (6,650 kilometers), flows north from
the heart of Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. Its flood plain was a magnet for life --
human, plant and animal. Humans were drawn there because they could grow crops
and settle into permanent villages.
Bounded on the south,
east and west by an
impenetrable desert, and
on the north by the sea,
ANCIENT EGYPT was
protected from outside
influences, which allowed
it to evolve in its own
For centuries, THE NILE RIVER FLOODED THE VALLEY, enriching the land with a
thick layer of alluvial soil. Flooding occurred from July to September as the result of
the tropical rains in the Ethiopian tableland. The river attained its highest level in
October, then began to recede to its lowest point sometime between April and June.
TRANSPORTATION: The Nile River was the highway that joined the country
together. Up until the nineteenth century, travel by land was virtually unknown.
DUALITIES, such as
desert and river valley,
Upper and Lower Egypt,
life and death, were an
principle of the
Egyptian’s world view.
ancient Egyptians built their
pyramids, tombs, temples
and palaces out of STONE,
the most durable of all
These building projects
took a high degree of
engineering SKILL, and the
organization of a LARGE
of highly trained craftsmen
Apart from the pyramids, EGYPTIAN BUILDINGS were decorated with PAINTINGS,
CARVED STONE IMAGES, HIEROGLYPHS, and THREE-DIMENSIONAL
STATUES. The art tells the story of the pharaohs, the gods, the common people and
the natural world of plants, birds and animals.
One of the oldest mysteries surrounding ancient Egypt concerns the building of the
PYRAMIDS. How did humans move such massive blocks of stone using only Stone
Age tools? The Egyptians left thousands of illustrations depicting daily life in the Old
Kingdom. Curiously enough, none of them show how pyramids were built.
SEVERAL THEORIES attempt to explain how pyramids were constructed, but for
now, the mystery has yet to be solved.
The Ramp Theory
One theory suggests that RAMPS were used to haul the stone
blocks on wooden sleds up the side of the pyramids. The ramps
were lubricated with water to reduce friction when hauling the blocks.
As few as 10 men were needed to drag a stone block up a ramp.
may have been several ramps on each side of the pyramid at
different levels, and a ramp may have been coiled around the
pyramid as it grew in height. Once a stone block reached its desired
level, wooden rockers may have been used to maneuver it into
Ramp on pyramid
Stone block on sled
Pouring water to lubricate the ramp
Rocking a block into position
Other Pyramid-Construction Theories
THE WOODEN CRANE THEORY suggests that a wooden crane with a
counterweight on one end may have been used to lift the blocks from one
level to the next.
This theory has been DISPUTED, since the Egyptians did not have access to
trees that were strong enough for this type of work.
The average weight of the STONE BLOCKS used to build the Great Pyramid
at Giza has been estimated at 2.5 TONS. Such an enormous weight would
undoubtedly break a wooden crane before the block could be lifted.
THE PULLEY AND FULCRUM THEORY: Another possibility involves the use
of pulleys to hoist the blocks up the ramps and fulcrums to manipulate the
blocks into place. Pulleys were used on ships at the time.
The pyramids were probably NOT BUILT BY SLAVES because slave labor was
not widely used in Egypt at the time. PEASANT FARMERS, however, were
required to spend a number of weeks working on construction projects. This
provided the paid labor needed to build these gigantic structures. Since the fields
were under water during the summer, wages earned in building the gigantic
pyramids SUPPLEMENTED THE FAMILY'S INCOME.
Pyramids did not stand alone; they were part of a FUNERARY COMPLEX. The
complex includes a PROCESSIONAL CAUSEWAY that links a FUNERARY
TEMPLE to the pyramid, SOLAR BARQUES buried on the four sides of the
pyramid, and MASTABAS and smaller pyramids where the family of the king
and nobles were buried
• GOVERNMENT and RELIGION were inseparable in ancient Egypt. The
PHARAOH was the head of State and the divine representative of the
gods on earth.
• Religion and government brought order to society through:
– The construction of TEMPLES
– The creation of LAWS
– The ORGANIZATION OF LABOR
– TRADE with neighbors
– The DEFENCE of the country’s interests.
Ancient Egypt achieved stability through the co-
operation of all levels of the population.
• The PHAROAH was at the top of the social
• Next to him, the most powerful officers
were the VIZIERS, the executive heads of
• Under them were the HIGH PRIESTS,
followed by ROYAL OVERSEERS
(administrators) who ensured that the
42 DISTRICT GOVERNORS carried out
the pharaoh's orders.
• At the bottom of the hierarchy
were the SCRIBES, ARTISANS,
FARMERS, and LABORERS.
To reinforce their image as powerful divine rulers, the PHARAOHS
represented themselves in writings and sculptured reliefs on temple walls.
They often DEPICTED THEMSELVES AS WARRIORS who single-
handedly killed scores of enemies and slaughtered a whole pride of lions.
Not all the pharaohs were
men. Before the Graeco-
Roman period, at least
three WOMEN ascended
the throne, the most
important being Queen
ROYAL WOMEN: Royal mothers,
wives, and daughters derived their
status from their relationship with
Kings had MANY WIVES and royal
families were large.
The most prolific was Rameses II,
who had eight wives and over a
To keep the royal bloodline pure,
kings often MARRIED within their
family, a SISTER or half sister, for
In a few cases, they married their
DAUGHTERS, although it is not
clear whether or not these
marriages were true conjugal
Next to pharaoh, the most powerful
officer in the hierarchy was the VIZIER,
the EXECUTIVE HEAD of the
The position of vizier was filled by a
prince or a person of exceptional ability.
His title is translated as "superintendent
of all works of the king.“
As the SUPREME JUDGE of the state,
the vizier ruled on all petitions and
grievances brought to the court.
All ROYAL COMMANDS passed
through his hands before being
transmitted to the scribes in his office.
They in turn dispatched orders to the
heads of distant towns and villages, and
dictated the rules and regulations
related to the collection of taxes.
The ancient Egyptians remained very conscious of SOCIAL
STRATIFICATION, and barriers between the classes were quite rigid.
Climbing the social ladder was difficult, but it could be achieved through
outstanding accomplishments in professions such as that of the scribes
and the MILITARY.
The military took part in WARFARE and TRADE missions, helping to
maintain Egypt's sovereignty and expand its territories.
The EGYPTIAN LANGUAGE was one of the earliest languages to be written
down, perhaps only the Sumerian language is older.
First appearing on stone and pottery dating from 3100 B.C. to 3000 B.C., it
remained in use for almost 3,000 years.
The last inscription was written in A.D. 394.
The word HIEROGLYPH literally
means "sacred carvings". The
Egyptians first used hieroglyphs for
inscriptions carved or painted on
This form of PICTORIAL WRITING
was also used on:
• Sheets of papyrus
• Wooden boards covered with a
• Fragments of limestone.
The ancient language was written by SCRIBES who, from a young age, went
through a long apprenticeship before they mastered the skill of writing.
The ability to write guaranteed a SUPERIOR RANK IN SOCIETY and the
possibility of career advancement.
CLIMBING THE SOCIAL LADDER was difficult, but it could be achieved
through outstanding accomplishments in professions such as that of the
scribes and the military.
Be a scribe. It will save you
from toil and protect you from
every kind of work. It will
spare you from bearing hoe
and mattock, so that you will
not have to carry a basket. It
will keep you from plying the
oar and spare you all manner
-- Excerpt from a text used in the
New Kingdom for the instruction of
To make the paper-like writing material, the exterior of
the PAPYRUS stem was discarded and the interior was
cut into thin strips.
The strips were soaked in water and beaten to break
down and flatten the fibers.
They were then layered crosswise and lengthwise to
produce a sheet, which was beaten again to mesh the
Papyrus Plant Weights were placed on the sheets while they dried.
Once dry, the sheets were rolled up and stored until
Animation of paper-making process
DRAFTSMEN were scribes who
specialized in drawing.
They followed a formula that
makes standing and sitting
figures look stiff.
Using a traditional grid of 18
squares, they sketched figures
according to a predetermined
pattern, making no attempt to
The eyes and shoulders are
drawn from the front and the
face, torso, arms and legs
Sacred texts, known as the PYRAMID TEXTS, were written on the inner passages
and the walls of the burial chamber.
They were intended to help the pharaohs travel through the afterworld, to secure
regeneration and eternal life.
The Pyramid Texts are considered the oldest body of religious writings in the world.
I was the one who began emphasized the afterlife
(everything), the dweller in the and helped the
Primeval Waters. deceased find their way
in the afterworld.
First Hahu* emerged from me
and then I began to move. Inscribed inside the
I created my limbs in my 'glory' coffins of Middle
I was the maker of myself, Kingdom high officials,
they consist of over
in that I formed myself
1,000 spells (prayers for
according to my desire and protection and
in accord with my heart. empowerment).
-- Egyptian High God
*The wind which began the separation
of the waters and raised the sky
Osiris Maat Amemet
The JUDGMENT OF THE DEAD was a way of attaining new life. The deceased
were taken before OSIRIS and their hearts were weighed on a scale, against a
feather representing MAAT, the goddess of truth and justice.
Those who were good passed through to the new life as transfigured spirits.
Those who were judged as wicked, were tossed to the goddess AMEMET, "the
swallower." who was portrayed as having the rear of a hippopotamus, the fore of a
lion, and the head of a crocodile.
The BOOK OF THE DEAD
190 chapters of spells to
assist the deceased on
their voyage to eternity.
Texts were originally
written on papyrus and
placed near the dead.
One spell was inscribed on
a heart scarab –an amulet
placed over the heart
either within the mummy's
bandages or inside the
Later, the spells were
written on strips of linen
that were wrapped around
RELIGION is the glue that binds local communities together and transforms them
into nations. It creates common understandings and shared values that are
essential to the growth of a civilization.
By looking at ancient Egypt, one
can see how belief systems
In the early stages of human
thought, the concept of God did
Our early ancestors were
concerned about natural
phenomena and the powers that
controlled these phenomena.
Before the concept
of God existed,
They did not worship a
magical power was
personalized form of God.
the hieroglyph of a
This stage of religious
SCEPTER (or rod
development is referred to as
As human society evolved,
people gradually gained a degree
of personal identity.
With a higher sense of
individuality, humans began to
conceive the gods in a
This stage in development is
In Egypt, this process began
during the late prehistoric period,
when writing was being invented
and myths were being
Osiris Isis Horus
At that stage, every Egyptian town had its own particular deity represented by
an ANIMAL (such as a cat-goddess, cobra-goddess, ibis-god or jackal-god).
Eventually, these gods and goddesses were given HUMAN BODIES and
credited with human attributes and activities.
The temples in the major cities throughout the land were constructed to
venerate LOCAL GODS.
During the New Kingdom, these temples honored a TRIAD OF GODS based
on the pattern established by the mythical family of OSIRIS, ISIS and
Like all religions, that of ancient
Egypt was COMPLEX. It evolved
over the centuries from one that
emphasized local deities into a
national religion with a smaller
number of principal deities.
Some theologians think that Egypt
was moving towards a monotheistic
faith in a single creator, symbolized
by the SUN GOD.
There was no single belief system,
but the Egyptians shared a common
understanding about the
CREATION OF THE WORLD and
the possibility of REVERTING TO
CHAOS if the destructive forces of
the universe were unleashed.
PRIESTS worked at the
temples, conducting the
daily rituals of clothing,
feeding and putting to bed
the sculpted images that
represented the gods.
In mortuary temples,
priests conducted similar
ceremonies to nourish the
KA (soul-spirit) of a
deceased pharaoh or
The priests shaved their
heads and body hair, and
washed their bodies twice
daily as a ritual act of
purification. They wore
gowns or kilts of pure white
Entering a Temple
The ancient Egyptians believed in the RESURRECTION OF THE BODY and life
everlasting. This belief was rooted in what they observed each day.
The sun fell into the western horizon each evening and was reborn the next
morning in the east.
New life sprouted from grains planted in the earth, and the moon waxed and
As long as order was maintained, everything was highly dependable and life
after death could be achieved. But there were certain conditions.
For example, the body had to be preserved through MUMMIFICATION and
given a properly furnished tomb with everything needed for life in the afterworld.
Around 450 B.C., the Greek historian HERODOTUS documented the art of
As much of the brain as it is possible is extracted through
the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot
reach is dissolved with drugs. Next, the flank is slit open . . .
and the entire contents of the abdomen removed. The cavity
is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out . . . Then it is
filled with pure crushed myrrh, cassia, and all other aromatic
substances, except frankincense. [The incision] is sewn up,
and then the body is placed in natron, covered entirely for
70 days, never longer. When this period . . . is ended, the
body is washed and then wrapped from the head to the feet
in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared on the
underside with gum which is commonly used by the
Egyptians in the place of glue. -- Herodotus
NATRON, a disinfectant and dehydration agent,
was the main ingredient used in the
mummification process. A compound of sodium
carbonate and sodium bicarbonate (salt and
baking soda), natron essentially dried out the
The body was filled with Nile mud, sawdust,
lichen and cloth scraps to make it more flexible.
Small COOKING ONIONS or linen pads were
sometimes used to replace the eyes.
Beginning in the third dynasty, the internal
organs (lungs, stomach, liver and intestines)
were removed, washed with palm wine and
spices, and stored in four separate CANOPIC
JARS made of limestone, calcite or clay.
However, the HEART was left in the body
because it was considered the center of
MATERIALS USED IN MUMMIFICATION:
1. Linen 6. Natron
2. Sawdust 7. Onion
3. Lichen 8. Nile mud
4. Beeswax 9. Linen pads
5. Resin 10. Frankincense
The ancient embalmers used very
few tools. The basic tool kit
included a KNIFE to make the
abdominal incision, hooked bronze
RODS to extract brain matter, a
wooden ADZE-like tool to remove
internal organs, and a FUNNEL to
pour resins into the cranial cavity
through the nose.
There are three elements to the
Egyptian CONCEPT OF SOUL:
• KA is the life force or spiritual
double of the person.
• BA is represented as a human-
headed bird that leaves the body
when a person dies. The face of
Ba was the exact likeness of that
of the deceased person.
• AKH is the spirit of Re (represent-
ing light), the transfigured spirit of
a person that becomes one with
light after death.
The journey to the afterworld was considered full of danger. Traveling on a
SOLAR BARK, the mummy passed through the underworld, which was
inhabited by serpents armed with long knives, fire-spitting dragons and reptiles
with five ravenous heads. Upon arriving in the realm of the LAND OF THE
GODS, the deceased had to pass through seven gates, reciting accurately a
magic spell at each stop. If successful, they arrived at the HALL OF OSIRIS, the
place of judgment.
Here the gods of the dead performed the WEIGHING OF THE HEART
ceremony to judge whether the person's earthly deeds were virtuous.
The person’s heart was placed on a scale, counterbalanced by a feather that
represented Maat, the goddess of truth and justice.
If the heart was equal in weight to the feather, the person was justified and
achieved immortality. If not, it was devoured by the goddess Amemet. This
meant that the person would not survive in the afterlife.
When a pharaoh passed the test, he became one with the god Osiris. He then
traveled through the underworld on a solar bark, accompanied by the gods, to
reach PARADISE and attain EVERLASTING LIFE.
The flooding of the Nile rendered the narrow strip of land on either side of the river
extremely fertile. INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE was practiced by the majority of the
peasant population. who played a vital role within the country's STRICT
HIERARHICAL SOCIETY. As the flood waters receded, SOWING and PLOWING
began, using primitive wooden plows.
In addition to such GRAINS as barley and emmer (a coarse wheat), a large variety
of VEGETABLES were grown, including onions, garlic, leeks, beans, lentils, peas,
radishes, cabbage, cucumbers, and lettuce. There were also FRUITS such as
dates, figs, pomegranates, melons and grapes,
The abundance of flowers provided nectar for the bees to produce HONEY, which
the Egyptians processed. FLAX was grown for making linen, and PAPYRUS was
harvested to be converted into paper, ropes, mats, sandals and light skiffs.
Breaking the ground Reaping and Separating the grain
with plow and hoe scattering the seed from the chaff
Although the land was worked by the PEASANTS, it was owned by the
king, his officials and the temples. Farmers had to meet GRAIN
QUOTAS, which were handed over to the owners as a form of taxation.
They were allowed to keep a portion of the crops for their own benefit. If
they did not produce the quantity expected, however, they were severely
In mid-September, farmers
blocked canals to retain the
water for IRRIGATION.
Still used today, the SHADUF
is a mechanical irrigation
device used to conduct water
from the canals to the fields.
One person can operate it by
swinging the bucket of water
from the canal to the field
LIVESTOCK was important to the Egyptian economy, supplying meat, milk,
hides, and dung for cooking fuel.
A variety of DOMESTICATED ANIMALS were raised, including cattle, oxen,
sheep, goats, pigs, ducks and geese. Peasants probably enjoyed meat on
DRAFT ANIMALS such as oxen increased agricultural productivity.
HERDSMEN and SHEPHERDS lived a semi-nomadic life, pasturing their animals
in the marshes of the Nile.
Barley and emmer, were used to make BEER and BREAD, the main staples
of the Egyptian diet. Grains were harvested and stored in GRANARIES until
ready to be processed.
The quantities harvested each season far exceeded the needs of the
country, so much was exported to neighbouring countries, providing a rich
source of INCOME for the Egyptian treasury
Grapes were processed into WINE for the noble class, but beer was the
favorite drink of the common people.
Food was served in POTTERY BOWLS, but NO UTENSILS were used for
Pharaohs and nobles participated in HUNTING, FISHING and FOWLING
expeditions, a means of recreation that had ritualistic and religious
HUNTING SCENES often depicted on temple walls and tombs reinforce the
prowess of kings and nobles. Rabbits, deer, gazelles, bulls, oryx, antelopes,
hippopotamuses, elephants and lions were among the wild animals hunted for
their meat and skins.
FISHING allowed the working class to add variety to its diet. The poor
substituted fish for meat, which they could not afford. The Nile, the marshes
of the delta and the Mediterranean Sea offered them a rich variety of
FISHING METHODS included the use of a hook and line, harpoons, traps
BIRDS, including geese and ducks, were also HUNTED in the marshes and
papyrus thickets along the Nile.
Small fishing boats called SKIFFS were made from PAPYRUS REEDS,
which are naturally filled with air pockets, making them particularly buoyant.
Skiffs were also used for hunting game in the Nile marshes.
Most HOUSES were made of BRICK. The banks of the Nile provided the mud
used to make bricks.
Brick makers collected MUD, added STRAW and WATER to it as needed, and
stomped it with their feet until it reached the right consistency. The mixture was
then placed in a MOLD. Once shaped, the bricks were removed from the mould
and left on the ground to dry in the sun.
Egyptian PEASANTS would have lived in SIMPLE MUD-BRICK HOMES
containing only a few pieces of furniture: BEDS, STOOLS, BOXES and LOW
CRAFTWORKERS lived in one- or two-storey FLAT-ROOFED
DWELLINGS made of mud bricks. The walls and roof would have been
covered with plaster and painted.
Inside, there was a RECEPTION ROOM, a LIVING ROOM, BEDROOMS
and a CELLAR in which food and beverages were stored. Food was
prepared in an OUTDOOR KITCHEN equipped with a mud-brick oven.
Stairs on the exterior of the house led to a ROOF-TOP TERRACE.
The HOMES OF THE WEALTHY were larger and more luxurious.
SPACIOUS reception and living rooms opened onto a CENTRAL GARDEN
COURTYARD with a fish pond and flowering plants.
Each bedroom had a PRIVATE BATHROOM, and the walls, columns and
ceilings were painted with BEAUTIFUL DESIGNS inspired by nature.
Elaborate and highly DECORATED FURNITURE included beds, chairs,
boxes and tables.
PAINTED CLAY POTS and vessels, as well as ALABASTER BOWLS AND
JARS, were also found in the homes of the nobles.
A villa from the city of Amarna
ROYAL PALACES, frequently CITIES IN THEMSELVES, included separate
residences, a temple and a workers’ village.
SKILLED ARTISANS were considered SOCIALLY SUPERIOR to common
laborers. They learned their art from a master who ensured stylistic continuity
in the beautiful objects they created for the living and the dead.
Skilled CARPENTERS manufactured a wide range of products, from roofing
beams to furniture and statues. Their tools included saws, axes, chisels,
adzes, wooden mallets, stone polishers and bow drills.
Other artisans included STONE MAKERS and SCULPTORS, BEAD
MAKERS, BRICK LAYERS, and POTTERS.
WOMEN engaged in WEAVING, PERFUME MAKING, BAKING and
NEEDLEWORK. Very few artistic creations were signed, and exceptional
ability was rewarded through increased social status.
Women of all classes COULD EARN WAGES, OWN PROPERTY and
EMPLOY WORKERS, but their main role was within the family. The title
most women had was "MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE". They were
considered EQUAL WITH MEN BEFORE THE LAW, and could sue for
damages and divorce.
FLAX grown by farmers was woven
into fine linen for clothing.
WORKING-CLASS MEN wore
loincloths or short kilts, as well as
long shirt-like garments tied with a
sash at the waist.
WEALTHY MEN wore knee-length
shirts, loincloths or kilts and adorned
themselves with jewellery – a string
of beads, armlets and bracelets.
WORKING-CLASS WOMEN wore
full-length wraparound gowns and
ELITE WOMEN enhanced their
appearance with make-up, earrings,
bracelets and necklaces.
Both men and women wore
SANDALS made of papyrus or went
The Egyptian ELITE HIRED HAIRDRESSERS and took great care of
their hair. Hair was WASHED and SCENTED, and sometimes
LIGHTENED WITH HENNA.
CHILDREN had their HEADS SHAVED, except for one or two tresses at
the side of the head, called a SIDELOCK.
Both men and women sometimes wore HAIRPIECES or WIGS made of
Elite men and women enhanced their appearance with various
COSMETICS: OILS, PERFUMES, and eye and facial paints. putting
on make-up, they used a MIRROR, as we do today.
JEWELLERY was worn by the elite for self-adornment and as an
indication of social status.
MATHEMATICS: Although the Egyptians lacked the symbol for zero, they
calculated numbers based on the DECIMAL and the repetitive (numbers
based on the POWER OF 10). The following signs were used to represent
numbers in the decimal system
1 10 100 1000 10,000 100,000 1,000,000
Numbers were usually written LEFT TO RIGHT, starting with the highest
denominator. For example, in the number 2,525 the first number to appear
on the left would be 2000, then 500, 20 and 5, as follows:
The Egyptians did not develop abstract mathematical formulas. They used
the simple arithmetic of ADDITION AND SUBTRACTION
ASTRONOMY: Like many ancient peoples, the Egyptians studied the night
sky, taking measurements from the stars to accurately align their pyramids and
sun temples with the earth’s four cardinal points. Using an instrument called a
MERKHET (similar to an astrolabe), astronomer-priests marked out the
foundations of buildings with astonishing accuracy.
The GREAT PYRAMID AT GIZA provides an example. This remarkable
building has a footprint of over 13 acres and consists of approximately 6.5
million limestone blocks. Its four sides are accurately aligned to face north,
east, south, and west, with an error of less than half a degree. They are also
virtually identical in length, with less than a 20 cm (8 inch) variance between
one side and another.
MEDICINE: The doctors of ancient Egypt combined MAGIC SPELLS with
REMEDIES. If a person fell sick, the illness was thought to be caused by the
wrath of the gods or by an evil spirit that had entered the body.
Both PRIESTS AND DOCTORS were called upon to heal the sick,
combining their powers and skills to fix the problem.
Doctors found cures for many diseases and some of their concepts are still
used today. They used CASTOR OIL as laxatives, TANNIC ACID from the
acadia tree to heal burns, CORIANDER in a tea for stomach illnesses, and
CUMMIN SEEDS on aching or arthritic joints and to calm a cough.
They also made and used TOOLS FOR SURGICAL USE that are similar to
the ones that we use today.
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